Thursday, December 13, 2012

Visiting The Past

As I write this, winter is around the corner. Shovels are being cleaned and wood chopped. But for some reason, snow and the prospect of a new year always brings to mind vintage images. Maybe it is the antique tree ornaments inherited from my ancestress (who I honor by using her name when I write westerns and historicals) or the Celtic performers who appear at the local history museum. By working the food table I not only get to stay out of the way of the public, but have a great view of the event. As so often happens when the muse is visiting, the remembered images of previous events, in this case last year's concert, shifted and were replaced by older pictures.
Vintage and historic images are a great resource for authors. Not only for characterization and setting, but sometimes the link to the past whispers a storyline that cannot be refuted. Last fall, while cleaning photographs recovered from the ruins of a building, some of the images demanded extra attention, a focus beyond a gentle blot to remove the mud. I had to stop and really look at the sepia-color image.

Sometimes the answers can be readily interpreted for such questions as to "Who were the people?" and "Why were they standing in front of a harnessed wagon?" Maybe they were posing for a promotional shot, or just possibly because the travelling photographer was available to take the picture. Use your imagination for the picture shown. Just a note, while similar to one of the rescued images, the image is from a collection I worked with years ago and selected for a book cover during one of my early explorations into publication.

Putting back together pages of a scrapbook that were separated to dry, turned out to be more time-consuming than expected. While some of the newspaper clippings were dry accounts, others called out and I had to read the entry. Not surprising to someone whose walks have been known to take her through local cemeteries, a few of the most intriguing tales recounted were obituaries. A secret--don't believe that either the tombstones that  marked a final resting place or the articles that commemorated someone's life and accomplishments are always dull.

Each turn of fragile yellowing pages revealed another tale such as the one of a man who believing an election lost took his own life.  One clipping told of a life well lead and an unexpected event upon reaching the desired goal of retiring to a gentler life. Or the note in the husband's obituary whose wife died by what was described as "a tragic death on May 8, 1890, by burning." In someone's future scrapbook might be a recounting of the man who used his wetsuit and bodyboard to escape his flooded house. No he wasn't riding the ocean waves, he was miles inland from the Atlantic. It came to him.

Authors not only capture moments in time, they bring them forward and give them life.  At my workshop, "It's Not Just the Facts," I tell attendees that history does not just belong in historical fiction. Worlds of yesterday, the culture and the people, have a place in all genres. As authors, we use glimpses of yesteryear to give our characters their own past and to make the worlds we create, whether built from our imagination, the world of today, or a distant future, vibrant and real to our readers.
The past is in us…in our characters…and sometimes, the actions (and images) of those who have gone before slips from the hidden vault of memory where they are stored and into our stories.

Thanks for joining me. Until next time ~

The works of multi-published author Helen Henderson crosses genres from historical adventures and westerns to science fiction and fantasy. In the realm of fantasy, she authored the tales of the dragshsi and the Windmaster series. Join her on journeys through the stars, back to the past, or among fantasy worlds of the imagination. First stop:


Big Mike said...

Wonderful thoughts HH. I do tip toe into the past and marvel at the fiber of the people that survived such hard times, unlike the X generation of today. About 3 years ago my cousin Linda shared with me the results of her decade quest to explore the roots of the Davis clan far back as 150 years. I was shell shocked at the stories about the things my family had to do in times of crisis, which back then was often in the impoverished areas of the south. Even incorporated their stories, with a fictional flair to fit the theme of the novel, in two books: VEIL OF DECEPTION and BLIND CONSENT. Its one of the benefits of writing, to record on pages the comedy and sorrow of one's real legacy.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Well expressed. many truths are found in old obituaries and the pictures, especially body language. I we think about our own moments captured, then realize how the tintype might be expressing a similar feeling, it does kick start the imagination.

As to the deprivation, I'm ashamed to be complaining about only one phone line, or a faulty dryer.

Helen Henderson said...

Julie, while I do live in New Jersey and a stone's throw from the Raritan Bay along which the Halloween storm wrecked havoc, unlike most of the residents in the neighboring town, my home was not harmed. The pictures and records I talked about were not my collection, but those recovered from the ruins of the local history museum which the storm surge destroyed. Local residents rescued what they could from the debris, from around town, and walking the beaches in hopes of preserving the history for the future generations to come. Helen